Oscar Charleston in 1922 (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth P. Overton estate.)
Whenever I’m prompted to discuss the greatest baseball players of all time, my answer is usually quite succinct: Oscar Charleston is the GOAT, and he most likely always will be. He was a five-tool player times 10, someone who casts a shadow over person I believe is the best MLB figure of all time, Willie Mays. Add in his supreme intelligence, cagey savvy and unquenchable fire, and there’s no one — not even Ruth, Mays, Cobb, Gibson — who can touch Oscar Charleston.
I’ll admit that I’m a little biased because of the seven and a half years I lived in Indiana, Oscar’s home state (he’s an Indianapolis native), and because I wrote an article about him years ago myself. I’ve been to his grave in Floral Park Cemetery, and I’ve strode through Oscar Charleston Park in North Center Indianapolis).
But regardless, there’s never been a comprehensive biography of Charleston that’s done justice to his talent, his influence, his success and his legacy. But Jeremy Beer has changed that with “Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player,” an exhaustive tome chronicling the Oscar Charleston story, and it’s destined to become a classic, just like Oscar himself.
Below is my recent, lightly-edited email interview with Jeremy Beer …)
RW: Given that Oscar Charleston is one of the greatest players and figures in baseball history, why do you think it took so long for someone to set about writing a book about him? What prompted you to take on the challenge and work through it?
JB: Well, oddly enough, we have full biographies of only two or three players who spent their entire careers in the Negro Leagues to begin with (Rube Foster, Josh Gibson and I think one other), so Oscar isn’t the only player who has been neglected. You would think that the burgeoning of African-American Studies departments would have led to a plethora of biographies and in-depth studies, but that hasn’t happened, for some reason. Also, until recently most old newspapers weren’t digitized. That the vast, vast majority of them are now online and easily searchable with one or two subscriptions was a huge help to my work — I probably couldn’t have reasonably undertaken it otherwise. So maybe that’s another reason: that only recently has everyday documentation of the past been so readily available to us.
I took on the challenge for two reasons: (1) I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of Oscar when I encountered Bill James’s ranking of him as the fourth greatest player of all time — if others also didn’t know him, that seemed like an obvious and regrettable injustice; and (2) Oscar, like me, was from Indiana, which meant it would be even more fun and satisfying to tell his story.
RW: What were the biggest challenges you encountered when conducting research and writing the book? How did you overcome them and get to the nitty gritty of Oscar’s life?
JB: The biggest challenge is that the trail is cold. Oscar has been dead for 65 years. I got started too late to talk to too many ex-players; as you know, their number has dwindled dramatically in the last 10 years or so. Oscar didn’t leave any descendants. Maddeningly, the nine brothers and sisters who lived to adulthood didn’t seem to leave much of a descendant trail either — my Ancestry.com family tree for Oscar was exceedingly difficult to fill out after his generation. In short, there just weren’t that many people to talk to, at least not that I could find (someone else might do better than me on this).
But I talked to everyone I could, and three other things really helped. First, I made contact with Oscar’s wife Jane’s niece and her daughter. They were tremendously cooperative and helpful and helped me fill out some details of Oscar’s personal life. They also had some great photos and other personal effects to share with me. Second, I had access to Oscar’s personal scrapbook and photo album, which are held at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City.
Those items offered precious windows into Oscar’s personality, interests, and character. I relied on them heavily. And third, sportswriter John Schulian graciously shared with me all of the notes he had taken when writing a profile on Oscar for Sports Illustrated in the early 2000s. Those notes included interview transcriptions with a number of players who had played with and for Oscar. All praise to John (who created Xena, Warrior Princess, by the way) for being such a mensch.
Then, of course, all the census data, ship manifests, birth and death certificates, draft cards—all of that stuff helped tremendously, and fortunately most of it is available on ancestry.com these days. These are good times for a biographer!
RW: How would you describe Charleston as a player, as a manager and as a human being? What were some of his biggest traits, strengths and weaknesses?
JB: As a player: intensely competitive with a nearly maniacal drive to win. Dynamic. Energy pouring out of him. Twitchy at the plate, always pumping the bat up and down. Talkative, including trash-talkative. Aggressive, taking the extra base whenever he could and sometimes when he couldn’t. Rather unconcerned with your personal safety. And needless to say, truly excellent at almost everything (he may have had only an average or just above-average throwing arm). As of right now, he has three of top seven best offensive seasons, by OPS+, in the Seamheads.com database (and five of the top 16, minimum 300 plate appearances) and has more of lots of counting stat than any other Negro Leagues player: hits, doubles, triples, runs, walks, stolen bases. (He is second to Gibson in home runs and RBIs.) He played a very shallow defensive center field and was lauded for more than a decade for his ranginess out there.
Oscar Charleston’s death certificate
As a manager: Oscar was a natural leader, first and foremost. His managerial style was not democratic, nor was there anything new-school about it. He demanded effort, punctuality and attentiveness. He also believed in the principles of “scientific baseball” as taught by his mentor C. I. Taylor, who signed Charleston to play with the Indianapolis ABCs in 1915. You didn’t screw around with Oscar as a player, but at the same time he had your back and was lauded by Crawfords players of the 1930s for the way he bonded them together as a team. He was voted the greatest manager in Negro Leagues history in one poll conducted 20 or 30 years ago.
As a human being: charming, charismatic, friendly, self-disciplined (he neither drank nor smoked). Said to have been an accomplished pool player and a good singer. He dressed well and was not unattractive to women, to the detriment of his marriage with Jane. Perhaps most importantly, he was really intelligent. He only went to school through the eighth grade in Indianapolis, but he nevertheless seems to have taught himself how to read, write and speak Spanish remarkably quickly while he played winter ball in Cuba. The intelligence is further confirmed by the sorts of friends and associates he preferred — almost always college-educated, socially accomplished types. He seems to have taken a lively interest in the issues of his day, including civil rights.
I’ve mentioned a lot of strengths already, so among the weaknesses would be hot-headedness during competition. He got into more fights than he should have on the field. He could be overly stern as a manager, and he wasn’t regarded as an innovator in that regard. And he was a proud man — not arrogant, but proud, and that probably hurt him at times.
RW: Many legends describe Oscar Charleston as “the black Ty Cobb,” not just for his incredible accomplishments as a player, but also for his irascibility, temper and boldness. Would you agree with that assessment? Or was Charleston more complex and misunderstood than that?
JB: So Charleston was like Cobb on the field in several ways, yes. He might spike you coming into a base and figure that was part of the game. When you were playing against him, you probably didn’t much care for his style; Buck Leonard certainly didn’t. But that’s about as far as I would go. Cobb, although he has been partially rehabilitated by Charles Leehrsen, was not very popular with some teammates and many others. He was moody and brooding, at least at times. And he definitely got into some scrapes and scandals off the field. Charleston was a more popular and likeable character, by contrast. I wouldn’t say he was irascible. He doesn’t seem to have been touched by the melancholic aura that surrounded Cobb, nor was he as concerned about preserving his own reputation. When sportswriters called him the “Black Ty Cobb” early in his career, it was mostly just a way of saying, “This guy is the best we have.”
RW: Some, including the great Buck O’Neil, felt and still feel that Oscar was simply the greatest of all time, regardless of race, league or era. Would you agree? Why or why not?
JB: I think it would really be stretching it to rank him ahead of Ruth, in terms of how much he towered over his contemporaries. But I think you could make a reasonable case against literally everyone else (besides Mays and maybe Honus Wagner, the best competition comes from Josh Gibson). I’ve imagined an alternative Oscar who played in the white majors and concluded that, look, we know he was incredibly durable, we know that his speed and defense would have translated easily to that game. Maybe he would have faced more consistently good pitching.
Headstone application for Oscar Charleston
Fine: let’s give him a career OPS+ of 140 (it was 174 in the Negro Leagues), 250 career home runs (he had 209 against major black competition, in a little more than half the career plate appearances of Willie Mays), 400 career stolen bases (he had 354), and make him an above replacement defender (so, a defensive Wins Above Replacement above 0). Who else has done that in the majors? Only Barry Bonds, who presumably had a little chemical help. And we are being *very* conservative with our alternative Oscar’s numbers here. So that’s one way of answering your question.
I will say, too, that you can make a solid argument that Charleston has the best overall resume of anyone who ever played the game, when you take into account not only his stellar playing performance but also his managerial record and his record as a scout. It’s worth mentioning that not only did he lead Negro Leagues teams to championships as a manager, but he also seems to have managed a semi-pro team in Philadelphia’s Industrial League during World War II. Why does that matter? Because it was an *integrated* team, five years before Jackie Robinson debuted for the Dodgers. That was pioneering. So was the scouting work he did for Branch Rickey in 1945, which I think probably makes Oscar the first African American to have paid to scout for a National League or American League team.
You put it all together and the resume is incredibly impressive.
World War II draft card
RW: Was there any person, source or organization that was particularly helpful as you pursued this project?
Tons! I’ve already mentioned John Schulian. Larry Lester was always generous and encouraging and shared photos, statistics — anything he had. Ray Doswell at the Negro Leagues Museum provided crucial assistance. Gary Ashwill gave me the day-by-day box scores for Oscar that underlie the stats on Seamheads. Ted Knorr in Harrisburg made key connections for me. Various librarians and archivists helped out. Ex-players gave me their time. Lots of others are mentioned by name in my Acknowledgments. And then I benefited so, so much from all the work done over the previous decades by Negro Leagues researchers like Robert Peterson, Donn Rogosin, John Holway, Neil Lanctot, Brent Kelley, Jim Bankes, and the list goes on. I am standing on the shoulders of giants in writing this book, to be sure.
RW: What has been the reaction and public response to the book?
JB: It’s been uniformly positive, fortunately. I do sometimes encounter skepticism that anyone as good as I claim Oscar was — or as James claimed he was—could actually have been so forgotten. Some people have a hard time believing historical memory can be so unjust. But it is! It’s not just Oscar and it’s not just Negro Leagues players who fall prey to the erasures of time. Other athletes, writers, inventors — there are plenty of stories out there to be recovered and re-told, especially the stories of those whose lives didn’t or still don’t fit convenient culturally dominant narratives. One of my jobs, as I see it, is to convince people that that’s the case.
Jeremy Beer’s Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player was published by the University of Nebraska Press on November 1. Beer has published on sports, philanthropy, politics, and culture in outlets such as the Washington Post, National Review, the Washington Examiner, First Things, Modern Age, the Utne Reader and the Baseball Research Journal, among other venues. He is the author of The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) and the editor of America Moved: Booth Tarkington’s Memoirs of Time and Place, 1869–1928 (Wipf and Stock, 2015). He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife, Kara.